LATAMA is a name that switchblade enthusiasts are familiar with. Another manufacturer has never equaled the overall quality and variety of switchblade designs that LATAMA has produced.
LATAMA's history has been argued to extend as far back as before World War 2. But, LATAMA's whole switchblade collection spans less than ten years, and those ten years were prior to the enactment of the 1958 switchblade act.
America has always been the principal consumer of LATAMA switchblades. LATAMA dominated retailers across America, providing all outlets they needed for their wares. Almost all of LATAMA's production was imported into the U.S. for years, and there had been no incentive to expand production into other countries.
After World War 2, the demand for steel, brass, and nickel was high, and the resources in Europe were exhausted from the war. LATAMA drew from skilled artisans in Maniago, Italy. They were able to establish switchblade manufacturing as a "cottage industry" there. Individual artisans were financed and supplied from America with the raw materials for manufacturing knives. This decentralized approach towards the manufacturing of LATAMA switchblades makes up the wide variety of designs produced.
One of the rare LATAMA designs is the 'square' button models produced in very limited quantities. They were created as samples or prototypes but did not appeal to the retailers who wanted to stay with the traditional button and sliding safety models.
The button is positioned where the front bolster meets the scale, almost touching the bolster. Most square button models have a very novel safety feature; a small piece of brass pivots under the button to prevent it from being depressed. The safety is released by pivoting the top, front bolster, and then a small extension on the bottom end of the bolster catches the brass safety and pivots it from under the button.
Another unique characteristic of the square-button is the way it locks up the blade in the closed position. Unlike the lock-up with the traditional button, these specimens require a cut-out in the blade. The button tops a post with a distinct lathed or shape to it. The post bisects the inside of the knife, extending through both liners. When the blade is closing, the shape of the button post connects with the cut-out, and the button is pulled down and pops back up as it is seated in the blade.
One of the things that has always separated LATAMA from other switchblades is attention to detail. The fit and finish LATAMA switchblade is superior to its era. On a number of these models, the word "patent" or "patent pend" is stamped on the blade's button. Some of these have a six-digit number, but this isn't a U.S. patent number. It was also possible that while stamped as a prototype or sample, this was done to create the illusion of design protection.
When you hear the mention of Italian switchblade stiletto, you can instantly conjure up a picture in your head. While the word is most often associated with an Italian switchblade, its origins date back to fixed blade daggers from the 1400s.
The Early Years (the 1400s to the 1800s)
The English and Italian word 'stiletto' is derived from the Latin word 'stilus.' This refers to a knife with a long thin blade designed primarily for thrusting. Initially used by knights to penetrate chainmail armor, the stiletto evolved to become the weapon of choice for mercenaries and assassins from the 1500s through the 1800s.
Italian switchblade stilettos are most often linked to the 1950s and the switchblade act. But, their real roots date back to the 1800s. A few Italian immigrants coming to the United States in the mid-1800s brought over stiletto knives. They were popular with the Mafia and other dark elements of society.
Three cities in Italy were primarily producing switchblade knives: Frosolone, Scarperia, and Maniago. The classic 'S' guard stiletto types were made in Maniago and most recognizable among Americans.
The earliest known Italian catalog shows different spring-fired examples, dating back to 1896. These first models and the switchblades made in Maniago were made entirely by hand up until World War 2.
Pre-World War 2
Before the war, production numbers were small for these knives and were made mainly by individual knife makers belonging to cooperatives. The purpose of these was to help the makers increase their buying power of materials and the selling and distributing of their knives.
Most switchblades that were found from that era are stamped with "Maniago" on the blade or "S. Coop" (for Societa Cooperativa). A maker's name may have been stamped on the blade as well, but those were few and far between.
The traditional "S" guard type was the most common Maniago stiletto style early on, and they are still seen in today's modern version. While these were the more popular style, other variations did exist, including the knives with the Maltese-style handguards. The most common blade type was the bayonet shape, but dagger and kris shapes were also used.
The earliest stiletto switchblades featured genuine stag handles, but soon horn became the material most often used. Very few early examples have been found with wood, mother-of-pearl, and ivory handles.
Another trait shared by these pre-war models was the blade release mechanism from the open position, most often called a "pick-lock" type. The back spring had a rounded tab that stuck out over the top bolsters on the side. The tab is pushed away from the bolster to unlock and manually close the blade.
World War 2 (1939-1945)
Nearly all switchblade examples from the beginning of World War 2 were fired by traditional oval or round firing buttons set in the front handle. These same models also each had small sliding safety buttons, which, when sliding forward towards the firing button, would prevent the firing button from being pushed. GIs returning home from the war brought back the Italian switchblade, which would soon become a hit in America.
After World War 2 the popularity of the switchblades exploded. Department stores such as Macy's were selling them. Every kid and the young man wanted one if they didn't already have one. Box office movies like "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story" portrayed the switchblade as both the defender of justice and a tool of fear.
Partially driven by the developments of the war, but also the demand for products, switchblades from Maniago stepped into the modern age following the war. Previously, all knives were made by hand and assembled one at a time. After the war, many makers started to stamp out or manufacture parts in groups and produced the knives into batches instead of individually. The faster mechanization of knives led to greater productivity of all things world-wide, which impacted many companies, from General Motors in the U.S. to an individual knife maker in Maniago. The demand became so great in the U.S. during the 1950s that men, women, and even children were assembling knives in Maniago and could barely keep up with production.
But the early 1950s brought forward some negativity to the switchblade. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee said that a ban on switchblades would significantly decrease gangs and violence. In 1958, the federal ban was enacted in the United States, making the manufacturing, distribution, and ownership of switchblades a federal crime. The law was written with the word 'territory' and not 'state,' which meant that individual states began interpreting and enforcing their own laws. This could range from siding with the federal government to offering no laws against the production or ownership of switchblade knives.
Even though America had been Italy's largest import market, they were not their only customers. While it was a massive loss for Maniago, they continued to make switchblades on a smaller scale for other customers worldwide.